It’s no wonder voters are fed up with politics. Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars politicians spend on opinion polls and focus groups, they clearly still don’t ‘get’ what is important to us.
This week in Parliament was just the latest example. During Question Time, the Opposition thought it would be clever to confront PM Scott Morrison and his ministers with some of the lies, denials and diversions they’ve fed to the Australian people.
Journalists and social media were cock-a-hoop that fact-checking had finally arrived in Question Time. That’s fair enough too – holding politicians to account for the veracity of their statements is long overdue in the post-truth world of Donald Trump and his acolytes.
But the problem with this otherwise worthy tactic is that Labor isn’t using it for worthy reasons. The Opposition is simply trying to turn voters against the government, and will fail because generally we don’t care that politicians are liars.
It’s not a revelation, and it’s something we’ve long taken into account when we can be bothered thinking about politics at all. What’s more, if we did care about being misled by politicians, we certainly wouldn’t be taking the architects of the ‘Mediscare’ campaign particularly seriously when they accuse the other side of porkies.
However some of our politicians’ other behaviours are guaranteed to agitate voters, despite the perpetrators obviously not being aware of this danger.
We might not care about politicians lying to us, but we do care when they insult or dismiss us or attack the things we actually believe to be important.
Take the wannabe Nationals leader, Barnaby Joyce, who was seemingly so desperate this week to prove he feels the pain of rural Australians struggling to get by on Newstart that he tried to equate his financial situation to theirs.
Digging up, I see https://t.co/Q2EPzsMlMy
— Josh Taylor (@joshgnosis) July 28, 2019
Apparently the backbencher is finding it tough to financially support two homes, a wife, a girlfriend, and three of his six children on a salary package of about $280,000, which works out to be more than 10 times what a Newstart recipient receives each fortnight.
To suggest that his dire straits are anything like those on the dole shows just how out of touch Mr Joyce is. His cack-handed attempt at empathy simply ended up insulting the people he was trying to ingratiate himself with.
Then there’s the Prime Minister, whose political radar is firmly fixed on the ‘quiet Australians’ who probably do think most Newstart recipients are lazy dole bludgers who’d rather sit on the beach than get a job.
That’s why the PM believes he’s on safe ground when resisting the calls, even from within his own government, to raise the Newstart rate. He also knows he can’t politically afford to do anything that might put this year’s slim budget surplus at risk.
Mr Morrison’s confidence is misguided, however, because the largest age group of those ‘bludgers’ is not teenage beach bums but senior citizens aged 55 to 64, lost in an economic twilight zone because they’re considered too old by most employers to get a job but not old enough by the government to get the pension.
As we saw in the May federal election, older Australians are a large and influential cohort of voters. They may have given their vote to the Coalition this year, but they can just as easily take it away at the next one – and may well do so if Mr Morrison continues to belittle and dismiss their concerns with coded language that suggests they should just go get a job.
If they could, they probably would.
Nevertheless, the prize for the most tin-eared politician of the week must go to Mr Joyce, not for his tiny-violin concerto on poverty, but for his attack on an issue that is critically important to one of the largest voting groups in Australia – women.
It’s no secret that Mr Joyce is obsessed with re-establishing his reputation as Australia’s best retail politician. This is the only path back to the Nationals leadership. And so he seemingly uses every waking hour to furiously cast hooked lines into the political waters to see if he can get a nibble from the media and accolades from his colleagues. If it’s not Newstart, it’s nuclear power, the Bradfield Scheme or radically changing the structure of the Senate.
Yet Mr Joyce took a step too far this week when he attacked the NSW government’s attempt to join the rest of the nation in decriminalising abortion. He doubled down on the insult to all of Australia’s women by invoking his newborn son to claim that mothers who sought abortions were ‘declassifying’ their child “as less than human and by so doing removing their most fundamental right to be alive”.
Mr Joyce is certainly entitled to this opinion, but it is a stark reminder of the antediluvian views and policies that emerge from political parties that are dominated by men and therefore have no clue about what is important to women.
Abortion may well be an ‘important’ issue to conservatives such as Mr Joyce, particularly men, but there’s nothing more important to a woman than being in control of her own body.
It’s one thing for politicians to say the issues they talk about are important to voters, and quite another for this to be true.
Until our elected representatives understand the difference, their clever parliamentary tactics will fail to register with voters and their claims to being ‘on your side’ will continue to be repugnant and hollow.